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The Chinese Diaspora and the Development of Chinese Nationalism

Updated on May 24, 2017
Chinese emigrants, often dismissively labeled coolies, would lead a massive expansion of the Chinese diaspora in the 19th century with major effects.
Chinese emigrants, often dismissively labeled coolies, would lead a massive expansion of the Chinese diaspora in the 19th century with major effects.

The Chinese Diaspora and influence on China

It is well known that diaspora communities can exercise a significant influence on their native country or region[1]. For a country like China, with one of the world’s largest diaspora communities, the impact must certainly have been profound. Yet, this important political influence has been little studied[2], even though the diaspora itself has received substantial focus. With the exception of events like the 1905 Boycott, the Chinese overseas diaspora is often written as exercising little role in the history of the construction of China, and even when it emerges briefly into focus, it flashes quickly into obscurity once again. More study goes to a few reformers like Sun Yat-Sen outside the system, although here the interpretation is mechanistic - - their principle advantage was that they were outside of the reach of Qing China, and capable of protesting in a way those in China proper were unable to do.

This view is erroneous. The Chinese overseas diaspora was instrumental in helping to mobilize and shape the discourse on Chinese nationalism, both due to its existence and the formidable struggle it faced overseas, and also because of its own agency in promoting a vision of China. Ultimately, it played a critical role in the idea of a conceptual Chinese community, initiating important events like the 1905 boycott, and would help to form many of the revolutionary institutions which were instrumental in transforming the country in the twentieth century.

In researching this paper, there are two competing scholarly schools for examination of China that should be considered to properly formulate the most productive results. The Harvard school of Chinese historical thought, traditionally dominant until Paul Cohen’s 1984 book Discovering History in China, focused on how the impact of the west shaped China in a way which attempts to trace their ancestry back to Euro-American pasts, understanding why Europe and America developed differently than China[3]. By contrast, the “China-centered” historical viewpoint focuses on its own historical agency, fitting China into a broader global context. Both schools of thought offer appropriate information for this project although, of course, there is an unavoidable embedded teleological element since the result is known, and the limitations of the study place, China, are still in primary relationship to the Euro-American nations.

Background and General Overview

China has a long history of engagement with other nations through the creation of an overseas diaspora community. This has varied throughout time in the way China has interacted with the world, with a host of different responses including semi-isolation, regulation, active engagement, and an uneven position facing a power disparity vis-a-vis “Western” (and Westernized) states. In general, there are two broad periods of the Chinese diaspora, at least as viewed from a lens from within China. The first, lasting until the Qing dynasty (1880), held the Chinese diaspora in suspicion with negative views for emigrating overseas, and generally provided no significant state support[4]. However, by the late nineteenth century the Chinese government itself was sending out diplomats to look after the interests of its people overseas who were laborers and overseas subjects of the coolie trade. A reversal of government policy had occurred, driven by the differing role of the Chinese diaspora in Chinese affairs.

Furthermore, the positionality of the Chinese diaspora itself should not be ignored. Before the middle period of the nineteenth century, the principal concentration of the Chinese diaspora was composed of large numbers of merchants, craftspeople, and laborers living in Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia[6]. During the nineteenth century, this expanded to include the aforementioned “coolie trade,” with contract laborers bound for Cuba, South America, the United States, indeed across the world, in the new emerging capitalist world system. Many of course, went into business like their predecessors[7], and so continuity should not be rejected, but the vast populations of overseas Chinese of humble status must recognized.

At the same time that this transformation in the situation of Chinese overseas was taking place, there was also a remarkable process of change that took place within China. The Qing dynasty’s system of government was indirect and remote from the vast majority of the population[8], and involved a “foreign” ethnic group ruling over China - for centuries, quite successfully - claiming a universalist “Mandate of Heaven.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, this was increasingly discredited, as reformers - - or revolutionaries - - such as Zhang Binglin, Zou Rong, and Sun Yat-Sen advocated for a “Chinese” China, governed by the Chinese, removing the Manchus from their position of power. There are certain cornerstones of this movement including the 1905 Anti-American Boycott, the 1911 Revolution, and May Fourth Movement of 1919, but these are principally visualized as internal Chinese affairs and their full importance to the diaspora community unexplored. They are perceived as the objects of actions of the mainland, without their own agency. The most famous interaction between the Chinese overseas and the Chinese mainland was the 1905 Boycott, but representations of this generally focus upon the role played in the mainland, while making little mention of the involvement of overseas Chinese.

A final vital concept is how China originally conceived of itself. The Chinese Empire was of course, not a nation-state. It was an imperial order with legitimacy and allegiance flowing to the emperor[9], and with a distinct ruling ethnic group of the Manchus. China’s socio-political organization under this system has been dubbed “culturalism.”[10] Of course, more than just loyalty to the emperor was involved, with the Chinese imperial bureaucratic system helping to link together and bind elites, but the emperor and the dynasty still functioned as the critical organizing elements of sovereignty. There were both “universalist” aspects of Chinese civilisation, and an opposing racialist tinge, with anti-Manchu writings early in the Qing dynasty by Wang Fuzhi, Huang Zongxi, and Gu Yanwu and growing Han exclusionism by the late eighteenth century, in the context of increasing struggle over limited resources in a period of population expansion.[11] This has import for this study by identifying the ways in which membership in the identity that called itself “Chinese” was structured. Both cultural and ethnic identity markers were present.

By the 1870s, China would actively encourage the movement of Chinese overseas, such as the Chinese Education Mission to the US under the pictured Yung Wing.
By the 1870s, China would actively encourage the movement of Chinese overseas, such as the Chinese Education Mission to the US under the pictured Yung Wing. | Source

Interaction of the Chinese State and the Diaspora

Before the 1870s and 1880s, the Chinese state was generally suspicious of its diaspora. This started to change for multiple reasons, including both moral imperatives to protect its population, and a desire to benefit from their wealth and presence[12]. With this shift, a sea-change occurred in relations between the Chinese diaspora and the Chinese motherland, since now they could interact and relate to China in a way that was legitimized by the state.

This overseas community was treated as a whole, rather than relating to individuals or factions. As stated by Zhang Yinhuan in 1886:

Especially because the Chinese have come from tens of thousands of miles away they should collectively carry out the practice of people from the same community respecting each other and not divide up according to prefecture and county. Seeking their livelihood away from home they should be as one family. When occasionally they have quarrels they should go to the Huiguan for resolution. Only as a last resort should they trouble the consul. We must let the other race know that we Chinese look after each other so that to some extent we can avoid being taken advantage of.[13]

This surely falls into the modernizing and rationalizing spirit of the Self-Strengthening Movement (1860-1895),[14] but at the same time it shows an intriguing asset; a statement that is nationalistic with a single race (but only the Chinese of that grouping, no mention of other people of the “yellow race”) that must stick together against the [white] foreign race, leaving behind their factionalism of prefectures and counties. Perhaps most boldly though, is the reference to the Chinese in America as a family. Zhang does not refer to them as children or sons of China, but they are instead a self-contained group. The figure of the emperor would clearly be one of the father, but the emperor could hardly be part of the Chinese family in the United States. By recognizing them as a family, the official tacitly creates them as independent and equal, if attached to China. They are expected to manage their own affairs, with only their fiercest quarrels brought forth for resolution. Zhang Yinhuan creates two families; the one of mainland China, and that in the United States, existing in parallel, and fulfilling the time-honored national idea of the nation as a “family.” Of course, the Chinese diaspora is still “Chinese,” and indeed would be called on more often than before in the motherland’s plight. But the meaning is still present and clear, with the premise that a Chinese national family does not call upon the Emperor as its legitimizing authority.

The Yongzheng Emperor, from a different era and with a different conception of state and nation.
The Yongzheng Emperor, from a different era and with a different conception of state and nation.

In comparison, this is a quote of the Yongzheng Emperor in 1728:

The native chieftains in Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Huguang live in remote areas along our borders and often conduct themselves in a despicable manner. Due to their evil nature, the barbarians living under native chieftain rule are continually subjected to unspeakable cruelties. Thus, I have ordered my provincial officials to recommend plans that will abolish the native chieftainships and bring the barbarian population under [Beijing's] administrative control. I take this action only because the unfortunate people living in these frontier areas are my innocent children. I hope to free them of such hardship and make their lives safe and happy. Under no circumstances am I expanding the size of my empire simply because of some misguided notion that there are people and land in these areas that I can use.[15]

In this reference, the situation is similar, with a people viewed as oppressed living under an “alien rule” of different polities. In 1728, the Chinese government was making its plans for how to ameliorate their situation. Of course, unlike the native chieftains, the American government is significantly stronger than China, but the impact of such on the relation of the Imperial Chinese government to its diaspora is only tangential. In the case of Chinese southern provinces, the inhabitants - who are not recognized as Chinese - are to become part of China, and the inhabitants are children, clearly to come under the paternal relationship of the Emperor. By contrast, in America, despite the diaspora being Chinese, referred to as such, a gap and a barrier exists between it and China, and the mode of what constitutes its relations among the Chinese is completely different, a national family rather than a family headed by a hierarchical leader.

The tendency for nationalist principles to receive attention in diasporas before the “home country” is not unique. Other examples include the initial uprisings of the Greek diaspora in the Balkans,[16] the famous Israeli example, or perhaps the case of Muslims in Central India who pressed the most vigorously, despite geographic separation, for the state which would later be Pakistan. China’s diaspora might have led it to tread a like path.

In neither of these two cases, that of the southern frontier or that of America, does the Chinese state renounce their connections and influence upon her “citizens” or “nationals” (a word which would most certainly not have been used in 1728, but which appropriately conveys the concept) overseas or outside of her direct control. The diaspora was still seen as being integrally related to China with substantial ties.[17] In fact, in 1905 the Chinese foreign office stated that it had “at heart the interests of our people sojourning abroad,”[18] officially placing the Chinese diaspora as “sojourners,” only temporarily removed from the motherland, but still separate from the body politic while still being recognizably Chinese.

Two Chinese diasporas existed in fundamentally different arrangements vis a vis the Chinese state. The first, consisting of traders and merchants, acted as diaspora capitalism. There was little need for the state to intervene directly overseas in such actions, as the merchants and traders served Chinese commercial objectives and trade independently of the state. By contrast, the second diaspora, while maintaining the commercial aspects of the previous, especially in Hawaii and South-East Asia, consisted of a much larger population of workers of low societal status. At the same time, China was involved in the mobilization of resources for modernization, and hence had requisite need of the support of overseas communities,[19] as the country became more globally concerned. One of the vital hallmarks of China’s “modernization” was its transition to direct rule. Indirect rule consists of nested hierarchy of levels of governance units, with the bulk of governmental authority being held by local authority.[20] A shift in state policy was necessitated by the needs of the state, sparking a transition from indirect engagement with overseas Chinese to indirect engagement fashioned after the Americas. Therefore, a growing proportion of Chinese found themselves under the direct concerns of the state. This then facilitated increasing emergence of nationalist principles as a method of governing the relations of the Chinese government with her overseas diaspora, with important aforementioned effects on China.

1905 Anti-American Boycott

In 1905, a popular movement acting with distinctly nationalistic characteristics emerged to challenge American repression and exclusion of Chinese in the U.S.,[21] and is often seen as a key milestone in modern Chinese nationalism. It represented a truly national mindset, banding together Chinese from all walks of life in defense of overseas Chinese, expressing itself in a way deliberately couched as modern.[22] There is an opposing argument which holds some merit that this movement stems instead from Chinese government policy.[23] However, even if the catalysts had been different, the points it attempts to contest do little to deter it as a Nationalist movement. Even if the Imperial government had fermented the boycott and supported it, the way it was fought and the language it used marks it as nationalistic.

Popular rhetoric was clear upon the matter. Nih Nih Sing, a popular newspaper, issued the following manifesto during the boycott:

Who said the Chinese are patriotic? Who said the Chinese are nationalistic? Inorder to exclude the Chinese, the United States adopted force, disregarded justice, ignored humanity and violated international treaties. This was a great insult imposed upon all of us we [sic] four hundred million Chinese. The reason why they dared to do this while we silently accepted the result was because they were united but we were not; they were strong but we were weak. . . . The immigration issue is not the Cantonese issue but the Chinese issue. The insult degrades not the Cantonese alone but the Chinese as well. If we four hundred million Chinese do not exert ourselves to support the boycott, we are not a nation anymore. . . . On the contrary, if we support the Cantonese to fight to end the unjust exclusion policy and our government takes measures complying with the public opinion, then the United States, no matter how strong it is, will be forced to moderate its exclusion policy.[24]

This is a truly excellent piece of nationalist rhetoric. It transforms the events from belonging to local communities or to the periphery of China - - the regions principally affected by the interdiction of free movement from China to the United States - - into ones which affected all Chinese, the imagined community of Chinese people. For the overriding majority of Chinese the exclusion would be a purely academic matter, with the majority of immigrants drawn from coastal areas such as Southern China,[25] and therefore with limited impact in the interior, and otherwise only a few government officials harried by American immigration officers. And yet, this could be simultaneously imagined as affecting all Chinese, because it impacted and offended the sentiments that were emerging of the Chinese nation, with this (rightful) sense of offensive and outrage being purposefully encouraged by the overseas Chinese community, working to distribute material to China concerning the injustices and cruelties they faced.[26]

This discourse also reveals one of the mobilizing benefits that American policy brought forth; there was no discrimination by the Americans beyond the level of “Chinese.” It has been noted that while Japan’s response to the West was a nationalist one, the Chinese response happened within the Imperial structure, with the possibility for different ethnic groups and factions to have competing interests. By contrast, American policy inadvertently treated China as a nation and dictated a response along nationalist lines.

The way in which the Chinese American community acted as its own agent in the 1905 Boycott was also vitally important. The first newspaper to call for a boycott was the overseas Xin Zhongguo bao or New China Daily in Honolulu in February 1903.[27] Throughout the boycott, financial contributions from abroad helped to sustain and support the movement in China, with large sums of money being sent, $3,000 to Hong Kong and Shanghai alone in just the month of July.[28] This material generosity would be repeated in 1911, with fund-raising from the U.S. and overseas Chinese communities providing the financing which would play an important role in the 1911 revolution.[29] This financial support demonstrates the loyalty and connection those abroad felt for China, and this physical demonstration should not be neglected for its impact on its own.

From Overseas to China: the Chinese Diaspora in Constructing China

In addition to their aforementioned material, the Chinese diaspora itself had important direct effects upon China. Furthermore, the diaspora was by no means a passive actor, to be worried over by intellectuals and activists at home who discussed the place of China in the world. Conversely, it played an outsized role in helping to directly shape such a discourse. Its function was critical in a new understanding of the Chinese nation and temporality.

A vital element of the importance of the diaspora was that it was outside the suzerainty of Qing law. This is most prominently shown by the formation of the Bao Huang Hui, or “Save the Emperor Society” or “Chinese Empire Reform Association,” the first mass Chinese political party in Vancouver in 1899. It was created by exiles of the Hundred Days Reforms and local merchants.[31] Thus, it was free to publish, write, and organize freely, without great concern over the Qing response, events like the abduction of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in London in 1896 notwithstanding. Within China itself, the presence of various foreign concessions was ironically a way for nationalists - - who agitated against the same concessions - - to escape the dangers of Qing China proper. From a purely mechanistic element therefore, the Chinese diaspora was naturally well placed to engage in discourse construction that emphasized anti-Qing policies, due to its relative freedom.

The treatment of the Chinese diaspora within literature is most telling. One of the great works of popular Chinese literature from the Qing era is The Scholars by Wu Jingzi, written around 1750 for the common people. Within the work I have accessed, there is no such thing as the imagined community, only a vast group of people having no connection except as part of a “nation.” The closest sense of community is derived from friendship rather than any sort of cultural linkage.

By contrast, it is interesting to compare the mass popularization campaigns present in 1905 during the 1905 anti-American boycott. These crusades spoke of the historical background of Chinese immigration to the US, and the subsequent “betrayal”and victimization the Chinese experienced there.[32] What a compelling image! Thousands of oppressed Chinese Americans, more than ten thousand kilometers away, suffering egregious insults by the Americans since the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.[33] This speaks to the same sense of transoceanic homogenous time that had been played out across the Atlantic.[34] People many thousands of miles apart, without a unifying state structure, could simultaneously and in parallel imagine themselves connected as part of a certain community, the necessary homogenous time aspects of which where a new understanding of concurrency and simultaneity exist has been so revealingly described by Benedict Anderson.[35] To a reader learning of the terrible circumstances, both real and exaggerated, of the Chinese diaspora in the United States in , they feel connected to that imagined community, in a full-fledged version of homogenous empty time, if sans the print capitalism of newspapers. For those with access to newspapers, the effect must have been less striking, but in the countryside it would hardly be unreasonable to suspect that this would be the first time that they were exposed to such a vision of constructing temporality and imagining political imagining.

Thus, the very existence of the Chinese diaspora in the United States was important for the creation of an imagined community, by creating a new understanding of time and space, one that would have important consequences for the development of the imagined Chinese nation. In this, it helped to create an early understanding of a horizontally organized community of people existing simultaneously but still imagined as being the same despite great distance separating them, that would be the model which China would take as her own with the formation of the Chinese Republic in 1911 and the long story of the entrance into “modernity” that has occurred since.



The 1905 Boycott was by far the most vivid display of the connection between China and its diaspora, however, in defining the creation of China, the influence of the diaspora stretched well beyond. Their presence enabled a discourse of the Chinese community to be constructed that would play a vital role in composing the ultimate borders and nature of modern China, pioneering networks of organization that presaged and were influential for the imagination of China as a nation. Through time, their interactions and donations of money, their plight, their existence, their actions, the Chinese diaspora helped to inspire and to form tremendous changes in how China came to conceive itself and its government, influences that reverberate to today.

Of course, in saying this, much of the development of China came internally. It would be foolish to ascribe the entirety of the creation of different modes of political community and thought to the Chinese diaspora. However, in saying this it is surely equally foolish to neglect their importance and connection that played such a vital role in the momentous changes that were sweeping through China in the 19th century. Their role has been one that has been neglected, or reduced to a limited and purely reactionary role. This is something that would be well to be rectified, with future scholarly research upon the subject.


[1]Martin Kilduff and Kevin G. Corley, “The Diaspora Effect: the Influence of Exiles on their Culture of Origin,” M@n@gement 2, no 1 (1999): 1.

[2]Jane Leung Larson, “The 1905 Anti-American Boycott as a Transnational Chinese Movement,” Chinese History & Perspectives (2007): 191-198.

[3]Charles A. Desnoyers, Patterns of Modern Chinese History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 151.

[4]P.A. Mathew, “In Search of El Dorado:Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia,” China Report 48 no.3 (August 2012):355-357.

[5]R. David Arkush & Leo O. Lee, eds, Land Without Ghosts: Chinese Impressions of America from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1993), 59.

[6] Desnoyers, Patterns of Modern Chinese History, 183-184.

[7] Ibid.

[8]Ibid, 160.

[9] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History From the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China ( University of Chicago Press, January 1997), 58.

[10] Duara, Rescuing History From the Nation, 56

[11] Duara, 59

[12] Mathew, “In Search of El Dorado,” 355.

[13] Arkush, Land Without Ghosts, 73.

[14] Desnoyers, Patterns of Modern Chinese History, 109

[15] John E Herman, “Empire in the Southwest: Early Qing Reforms to the Native Chieftain System,” The Journal of Asian Studies 56, No. 1 (February 1997): 47.

[16] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 106.

[17] Delber L. McKee, “The Chinese Boycott of 1905-1906 Reconsidered: The Role of Chinese Americans,” Pacific Historical Review 55, no. 2 (May 1986): 171.

[18] McKee, “The Chinese Boycott of 1905-1906 Reconsidered,” 182.

[19] Adam McKeon, “Conceptualizing Chinese Diasporas, 1842 to 1949,” Association for Asian Studies 58, no. 2 (May 1999): 323.

[20] Michael Hechter, Tuna Kuyucu, & Audrey Sacks. “Nationalism and Direct Rule.” Gerard Delanty and Krishan Kumar, eds., Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, (2006):85.

[21] H. Shih-shan Tsai, “Reaction to Exclusion: The Boycott of 1905 and Chinese National Awakening,” The Historian 39, no. 1 (November, 1976): 98-99.

[22] Wong Sin-Kiong. “Mobilizing a Social Movement in China: Propaganda of the 1905 Boycott Campaign.” Chinese Studies 19, no. 1 (2001): 400

[23] Daniel J. Meissner, “China’s 1905 Aneti-American Boycott: A Nationalist Myth?” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 10, no. ¾ (Fall/Winter 2001): 176.

[24] Tsai, “Reaction to Exclusion,” 100.

[25] McKee, “The Chinese Boycott of 1905-1906 Reconsidered,” 168.

[26] Ibid, 188.

[27] Wong, “Mobilizing a Social Movement in China,” 378.

[28] McKee, “The Chinese Boycott of 1905-1906 Reconsidered,” 188.

[29] J. Timothy Stanley, “‘Chinamen, Wherever We Go’:Chinese Nationalism and Guangdong Merchants in British Columbia, 1871-1911,” The Canadian Historical Review 77, no. 4 (December 1996): 500.

[30] Stanley, “Chinamen, Wherever We Go,” 475.

[31] Desnoyers, Patterns of Modern Chinese History, 183-184.

[32] Sin-Kiong, “Mobilizing a Social Movement in China,” 288.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London: Verso, 1983) 188

[35] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 22-36




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